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Popular readers and clandestine literature: the case of an early modern translation of Petronius’ Satyricon into Italian (17th C.)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PopClandSATYRICON (Popular readers and clandestine literature: the case of an early modern translation of Petronius’ Satyricon into Italian (17th C.))

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2018-09-30

The two-year project aimed at a comprehensive study (that is, from a palaeographic, linguistic, philological, historical and socio-cultural point of view) of a document that has never been studied before: a 17th-c. manuscript bearing an anonymous translation into Italian of Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’. The ‘Satyricon’ (or ‘Satyrica’), commonly ascribed to the Roman Petronius Arbiter (d. 66 CE), is one of the earliest works classifiable as a novel and is considered a masterpiece of the Latin literature, if not of literature itself. Since 1559 the ‘Satyricon’ was forbidden by the Roman Inquisition for its transgressive contents. Nevertheless, throughout the 17th C. Petronius’ work (in Latin) enjoyed impressive success in Italy as well as in Northern Europe.

In all probability, the manuscript translation, that currently belongs to the Biblioteca Angelica of Rome, represents a clandestine publication, hand-copied to avoid censorship.
The project was hosted at the CRH (Centres de Recherches Historiques) of the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in Paris within the Grihl (‘Groupe de Recherches Interdisciplinaires sur l'Histoire du Littéraire’), an interdisciplinary research group exploring literary practises in their social and historical context.
One of the main project goals was to assess how the translator adapted a sophisticated work such as the ‘Satyricon’ to a public of non-Latined readers. The project also aimed at an overall evaluation of Petronius’ reception as a forbidden author.
After having transcribed the whole manuscript, an exhaustive investigation was undertaken on the different editions of the 'Satyricon' printed between the 16th and 17th Centuries in order to identify the source text used by the translator and proceed to the comparison between the Italian translation and the Latin original text. The survey has led to the conclusion that the translation is based on different sources and that the text, as copied in the manuscript, cannot be ascribed to an individual authorship. All being written by the same hand, the translation must in fact have been copied and reworked several times. It was even commented with explanatory notes. Roughly, it was estimated that the composition of the translation dates back to the first decade of the 17th Century, while the manuscript itself dates to the end of the century. The translation must also have travelled across Italy, as documented by the presence in the manuscript of dialectal elements both from Northern and Central Italy.

Given such a stratification of hands, we can only estimate the original translation practise by the author. In any case, the Italian translation stands out for its strict adherence to the Latin text. Thus, it was defined as ‘vehicular’, that is, merely functional to make Petronius’ text accessible to the un-Latined. By no means the translator has emphasised the explicit erotic contents of the ‘Satyricon’; instead, the ‘Machiavellian’ aptitude of Petronius’ characters has been skilfully rendered in the Italian version. Further, the translation, at least as transmitted in the manuscript, clearly shows the effort made to simplify any erudite reference originally present in the Latin text.

The manuscript that transmits the Italian translation was realised by a professional scribe. Despite the manuscript neat and clear appearance, the quality of the scribal work is poor: we have graphic inconsistencies, misspellings, interferences with dialect. The manuscript itself is poor from a material point of view. Those elements prove that it was destined to a rather undemanding public. The accurate analysis of the manuscript (examination of the punctuation, textual division, use of catchwords) has also suggested that the manuscript may have been not produced for visual, individual reading but rather to be read out loud. That means that even the illiterate may have been exposed to the forbidden contents of the ‘Satyricon’ by the means of collective reading (a common practise at the time).

In its conclusions, the research argues that the reception of the 'Satyricon' as a transgressive work has not to be restrained to its Epicurean themes (such as irreligiousness and hedonism), but should also be put in relation with the well-known parodic component of Petronius’ work. The ‘Satyricon’ can in fact be read as an irreverent and immoral upturning not so much of conventional literature (as suggested by Petronian critics), but of the traditional values (chastity, loyalty, religious devotion) transmitted by conventional literature, and imposed by the established order. Additionally, the research has investigated the success within libertine circles of the tale told in the ‘Satyricon’(known as ‘The Widow of Ephesus’) and the satirical elements in Petronius’ work.
The research project has brought to light a document of the utmost importance that not only does represent the first version of Petronius’ masterpiece in the vernacular, but also reveals how forbidden texts were produced and actually circulated during the Age of the Counter Reformation. The diffusion of forbidden books (both printed and in manuscript) within popular strata is not totally unknown, being for instance recorded in Inquisitorial documents and has already been noticed by historians. However, the systematic study of the Italian translation has given to us the unique opportunity to reconstruct the mechanism of the commercial production of forbidden books from inside, concretely tracing how the translator and the scribe worked. Further, the extent of the diffusion of Petronius’ translation across time, space and social strata has revealed that the circulation of clandestine literature was much wider than ever thought. Thus, the project has opened the path for new, promising research areas.

The research originality, the quality of its achievements and its interdisciplinary approach (ranging from the methods of reception and translation studies, textual and literary criticism, to cultural and intellectual studies) extend the impact of the project to a large and differentiated public of specialists. However, the project potential impact is not limited to the academic world. In fact, the research results are meant to reach secondary school teachers of Philosophy and History, in order to diffuse an updated interpretation of 17th-century libertinism and of Italian Late Renaissance, commonly perceived as an age of mere obscurantism and decadence. Additionally, the research exemplifies the fruitfulness of interdisciplinarity and invites to avoid rigid divisions between History, Philosophy and Literature.